Bob Neal

Early in the pandemic, fears arose that America could run out of meat. Late in the pandemic, fears arose that America could run out of ketchup.

What’s going on here? Browse “feed lots” and “tomato farms” and you’ll see that we have plenty of beef on the hoof, plenty of tomatoes to make the pride of Heinz 57.

Now, as we slowly emerge from COVID-19, we can look at what will, what won’t, and what should change as we build a new normal. One thing that should change is food distribution. America’s food distribution systems don’t work nearly well enough. In a nutshell, they are too efficient, and they are too efficient because they are too specialized.

Remember last year when President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meat plants to keep operating? No, it wasn’t, as some wag suggested in The Washington Post, to ensure he didn’t miss out on some cheeseburgers.

It was because not only were meat workers getting sick faster and more seriously than the rest of us, forcing the few meat packing companies — four companies process 80% of American beef, according to the Missouri Farm Bureau — to close factories. Even when they reopened, plants couldn’t always get us what we wanted. The plants, processing about 100,000 cattle a day, run in high gear, which includes stationing workers elbow to elbow to minimize the time moving large hunks of meat. To hold down the price of meat, these huge plants do just one thing and they do it fast.

And they produce for just one market. Two neighboring plants might make products out of the same type of animal yet not compete with or overlap each other. One might make ground beef for, say, Wendy’s. The other might make boxed beef for supermarkets.

For the ground-beef plant to make boxed beef for supermarkets would require different equipment for stripping the meat from the bone, workers trained in cutting a beef quarter down to 40-pound chunks and the like. For the boxed-beef plant to make millions of pounds of ground beef for Wendy’s would require huge grinders and new packaging machines to put the ground beef into lots small enough to move quickly — ground meat deteriorates faster than whole cuts — to restaurants and a speedier distribution system.

So what happened with ketchup? When the pandemic hit, bottled-ketchup sales soared since we were eating burgers and fries at home, from our own skillets. And sales of the packets used for take-out died. As restaurants began to reopen and new rules banned placing a ketchup bottle on the table for community use, demand for packets soared.

Heinz makes 11 billion packets a year. With people eating out more, supply fell behind the demand. Heinz, which sells 70% of U.S. ketchup, said it would soon catch up (pun intended). Looks like Heinz met shifting demand as fast as ketchup pours from a bottle.

Contrast this distribution system with the local chain of farmer-butcher-store-customer. Here I have some experience since I ran a day-old-turkey-to-customer farm for 30 years. I could plan when to start a year’s flocks, drive to the hatcheries to pick-up the babies, raise and slaughter the turkeys and decide each week what items to process for sale.

We made 47 items and sizes of turkey items, from ground turkey to chorizo to breakfast sausage to breast cutlets to whole turkeys. If I had sold 50 pounds more of ground turkey than expected the previous week, I could send more meat to the grinder this week.

Distribution was simple. And easy.

Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of businesses are not coming back after the pandemic. It’s a tragedy on a major scale. But among small businesses, like direct-to-the-buyer farms, we will see the less specialized and more adaptable businesses stronger than ever. Restaurants that moved to take-out. Retail shops that added delivery. Etc.

In this time of politics infecting nearly everything (again, pun intended), another simple matter of distribution is getting complicated. In Europe, businesses are using a “vaccine passport” to screen people wanting to enter. President Biden has said the White House is considering at least 11 types of vaccine passports.

Skeptics object. It’s yet another infringement on our rights, they say. Like drunk-driving laws? To our point here, we already have “vaccine passports.” When I was vaccinated at Franklin Memorial Hospital, I was given a card with a sticker stating the type of vaccine (Moderna) for each injection. A Franklin Memorial staffer wrote in the date of each jab.

When I saw my primary care physician this week, I was asked to show the card.

It couldn’t be simpler. Or easier. But in these confusing times, we may find a way to make it more difficult. Just like boxing up beef or ketchup.

As a farmer, Bob Neal distinguished between the simple and the easy. Strive for the simple but work hard to apply it. Huge food corporations seem to follow a different path. Neal can be reached at [email protected]

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